Let me start this off by saying their has been very little connecting Axel Witsel to Chelsea thus far that I would call "reliable". The Mirror and the Daily Mail have both run stories stating that Chelsea have some interest, and that would seem to be very logical. Witsel is young, having turned 23 this past January. He plays primarily as a central midfielder. He's certainly physical enough to adapt the the Premier League with ease, and finally he's Belgian. He also plays for Benfica, a club that is generally known as a seller. All of those things seem to be factors that would create a natural link to Chelsea, so it's no surprise that we're starting to hear rumblings. Since I think Witsel would be a great fit, I decided to profile him this afternoon.
Witsel broke through the first team ranks at Standard Liege at the age of 17. He came through their academy as an attacking midfielder, but made most of his early appearances on the right wing. He was quickly moved back to the central midfield in his first full season, forming a dynamic midfield with Marouane Fellaini and Stephen Defour. He and Fellaini played in what would be roughly equivalent to our double pivot that season, and Witsel was very impressive in that role. Fellaini would depart that summer, and Witsel would be the midfielder asked to carry the increased load. He excelled, and soon moved to Benfica as a result.
Some of you may remember Witsel from our 2 games against Benfica this past spring. Axel played in a more advanced role in the first leg, and was one of the better players on the pitch that day. He looked exceptional in the second leg in a more withdrawn role, playing as part of a double pivot as Chelsea sealed a date with Barcelona (remember that?).
Witsel stand's 6'1" tall and is solidly built. He's a good all around athlete, fairly fast, strong, and good in the air. He's known for a Ramires like work rate, covering loads of ground in every match he plays. I don't think there is much question about how Witsel would adapt to the more physical nature of the Premier League.
The young Belgian is fairly gifted technically as well. He's a solid passer that isn't afraid to try a difficult through ball. He'll often make driving runs into the box, something that you'll see a lot of in the video. This does lead to him being caught out of position too often, and that's something that will need to improve. He's got a solid first touch, and is generally pretty good with the ball at his feet. He's also got a bit of a reputation for making some very hard tackles, a quick search of youtube will give you a few stomach turning examples. For obvious reasons, I'm not going to link those. Search for them only if you don't have a weak stomach.
Anyway, I'm sure many of you would like some video of Witsel that doesn't involve him breaking legs. Here's he and Chelsea player Eden Hazard (hooray!) vs. the USA:
Here's a pair of goals he netted against FC Twente in this season's Champions League:
Here's a longish one with a few highlights from various games. The very first highlight features a cross from someone you all might recognize:
As I mentioned before, I haven't seen any sort of reliable link to Witsel yet, but he's an ideal fit for Chelsea as a cheaper, younger alternative to Luka Modric. Witsel is not a like for like with Modric, but he'd accomlplish what we're looking for with a potential Luka signing. He doesn't have the passing range of Modric (at least at this point), but he's certainly the type of player that can link the defense to the advanced midfield. He's also a far more dangerous goalscoring threat than Luka, as he's far more capable in the 18 yard box. He'd certainly make the Chelsea transition from defense to attack much more effective than it was last season, and that's filling a big need.
Chelsea also have a very good working relationship with the Portuguese club despite the fact that their manager is a complete jackass. We've finished deals for Ramires and David Luiz in the past several seasons, and even managed to use a fringe player as a makeweight in one of those deals. Between our Belgian connection, age, positional need, and our Benfica connection, Witsel just makes an awful lot of sense. If Luka Modric is indeed heading to Real Madrid, Axel Witsel would be a fantastic alternative in my eyes.